Life Issues: The Unheeded Cry of Post-Abortion Grief
Article by Anne Lastman
Grief is the natural human response to the traumatic loss of someone or something very important to the life and well-being of the individual. It is the psyche’s attempt at dealing with a separation from someone or something important to its own equilibrium.
Post-abortion grief and trauma are unique because it is widely assumed that there should never be any grief associated with abortion. It is understood that termination of an unwanted pregnancy is the norm (because it is the most common surgical procedure carried out these days). Therefore, because of the perception that abortion is commonplace and “everyone is doing it”, the outcome is expected to be positive.
This is not so. Indeed, because so many people harbour this mistaken perception, the grief that is experienced by anyone following an abortion becomes un-validated grief — or, as Professor Kenneth J. Doka has called it, disenfranchised grief (see his book, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. New York: Lexington Books, 1989).
Abortion remains a contentious issue. Proponents of abortion demand a woman’s freedom to choose, while opponents of abortion demand an end to the killing of the unborn and the damage done to people affected by abortion.
Sadly, the voices of anguished individuals who have undergone an abortion, and later come to regret the decision, remain generally unheard. The voices of men and women crying out in pain continue to remain unheard because of the political din surrounding this issue.
The voices of those in pain need to be heard if there is to be a proper understanding of the abortion issue. Only through the tears and testimony of those who have walked the path of abortion, and not emerged unscathed, can the truth be told.
For these individuals the abortion decision has meant anguish, for they were not counselled that (i) grief was possible; (ii) an increased risk of breast cancer is a certainty; (iii) lifelong sorrow and all manner of psychological suffering and behavioural problems would be assured; and (iv) life would never return to the pre-pregnancy state.
Instead, they were misleadingly counselled that abortion would resolve their immediate difficulties.
No one can return to a pre-pregnancy stage. Whatever the decision, a child will be born, even an aborted child; but it will be born dead. It will be born to both the mother carrying the child and the father who has engendered that child. It will be born, but the nature of the birth and the effect on his/her mother, and at times the father, will not be celebrative.
From the instant of conception, the hormones coursing through the mother’s body ensure that dialogue begins almost immediately between mother and child. In fact, this dialogue begins long before the embryo’s presence is even known. Irrespective of the duration of gestation, the relationship between mother and the child in the womb has begun.
Termination does not negate the relationship or the pregnancy: it ends it, but the relationship has nonetheless existed and will continue to exist for the lifetime of the mother.
The duration of gestation and the strength of the mother-child bond at this stage are unimportant. What is important is the reality that it has been started and has flourished, even for a short time, and this is what causes the pain.
The reality is this deeply held, innate knowledge that what existed was really a child — “my child”. The decision to undergo an abortion was a death sentence passed on my “son” or my “daughter” or my “baby.” This acknowledgement brings with it a deep sense of pain, shame, guilt and other emotions. It puts the abortive woman onto a new path marked with the sign, “self-destruct”. Intervention then becomes essential to prevent this self-destruct proclivity from leading to further tragedy.
Post-abortion grief counselling is a specialised type of counselling that has to deal with the complicated nature of the grief. The counsellor, mental-health practitioner, pastor or priest needs to be prepared to understand and support the individual through the abortion pain, and not make the mistake of reassuring the woman that the abortion was “all for the best”. If it really was “all for the best”, there would be no pain.
It is particularly important to understand that if the counsellor is not particularly in favour of life, the abortive woman will immediately sense this and no longer feel validated and free to speak to someone who does not believe that the death of her very small child is of great concern. In the long term, this is not a suitable environment for healing.
Post-abortion grief is a psychic and spiritual pain, and dealing with it requires accommodating and working with an individual’s own religious beliefs, whatever religion that person may belong to.
This type of counselling provides a vastly preferable environment, because possessing a religious belief permits a belief in a future life and a place of serenity for the infant. It is important for the mother to know that her baby is not suffering.
On the other hand, in the absence of religious belief, the individual will have to try to forgive herself, and
often this is the most difficult thing to do. She also has no place to locate her child, either in this world or the next, because the body of her child was unseen and no longer exists.
The mother is grieving for the loss of her child, but there is no body to hold and touch because it has been disposed of as medical waste.
Having said this, there is much hope for healing of this type of pain. However, it is not an instantaneous “magic cure”. It requires love, patience, perseverance and belief in the value of every human life, including that of the aborted baby and, importantly, in the still valuable life of the mother.
Anne Lastman is a qualified psychologist who has worked as a post-abortion grief counsellor for nearly 12 years. She is founder of the Victorian-based organisation, Victims of Abortion, and has recently written a book, Redeeming Grief: Abortion and Its Pain, published by Freedom Publishing.
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